Skills and Education for Robotics and IoT

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< Project Overview >

Introduction

The project produced a detailed report of the current skills deficit around IoT and related Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) Revolution technologies, as well as an analysis of what skills will be required in the workplace of 2030. The report also addressed issues of diversity and inclusion in IoT skills acquisition and explored ways to encourage more women and other under-represented groups to work in IoT and develop the requisite skills for the 2030 workplace.

Key findings and recommendations of the report include potential initiatives for future skills provision programs that seek to resolve the IoT skills deficit through diverse pathways including new teaching resources and methodologies, the need for improved professional training for educators, a more coherent approach to skills provision by establishing a non-profit institute to co-ordinate skills policies and the utilisation of ‘Making’ and other problem-solving initiatives to draw people with little previous technological experience into further engaging with IoT. The report will form a chapter of a White Paper on Skills and Education to be published in Q2 2021 and a conference paper on Online IoT Intervention in a Time of Lockdown for a national SERAS (Skills & Education for Robotics and Autonomous Systems) conference to be held in July 2021.

With lockdown and the unfolding context of Covid-19 rendering face-to-face engagement impossible, this project was forced to explore how best to design an online event to create pathways for people with little or no experience of the Internet of Things into further engagement with IoT and an acceptance of working with the machines and related technologies of 4IR.

The project represented a collaboration of several universities, such as the University of Edinburgh, the Open University and Queens University Belfast and other organisations such as the Institute of Coding (IoC), The National Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Centre and Coleg Gwent, who worked with Sheffield Robotics and the wider UK Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) Network, to stage an online intervention over two weeks at the end of June and beginning of July 2020.

Representatives from Queens University Belfast, the Open University and Coleg Gwent joined Sheffield Robotics on the Task Group Steering Committee to organise the event. The Open University also collaborated with Sheffield Robotics to produce the report of the event and review of the current skills deficit around IoT.

Project aims

As evidenced in the report produced for this project, the primary skills that the future workforce of 2030 will require are problem solving, teamwork, digital literacy, critical thinking and communication. The project explored the extent to which an IoT-themed online engagement, such as the one staged in this project, can help engender such skills and launch participants on their own learning pathways.

With no way to engage potential learners in person, the project sought to design an online pedagogy and format that could attract participants with limited previous technological experience. It was deemed important not to intimidate potential participants by making the event appear too overtly technical, since the prime objective was to draw technologically inexperienced members of the community towards engaging with technology.

Similarly, it was important that online delivery shouldn’t make the format appear too formal and top-down in nature – the objective was that potential participants should be inspired by the format as well as the content of the project. The aim was to encourage tangible active learning so that participants would feel the event was something they could own for themselves – and so find their own prospective pathways towards further engagement with IoT.

The primary Pitch-In barriers targeted in the project are: ‘a reluctance to engage’; ‘familiarity with IoT at insufficient level to enable confident decisions regarding IoT’; and ‘lack of technically capable IoT staff to recruit and other difficulties recruiting them’. As reflected in the project aims and descriptions above, the Pitch-In barriers are important to overcome to provide the skilled workforce that IoT will need to thrive in the UK and to help previously inexperienced people and communities to engage with IoT and then find pathways to provide themselves with the requisite skills to work with IoT in the future.

What was done?

A detailed report was written on the current skills deficit in the UK around IoT and other 4IR technologies and also featured analysis of the skills required for the workplace of 2030 derived from diverse current literature and the expertise of partners in the project such as The Open University, Queens Belfast, STEM Learning and Coleg Gwent. Central to the report was an analysis of how best to engage those with little or no previous experience of IoT in technology and explore ways of helping them create their own pathways to further learning. Findings from the report were presented by the project in a session of the UNIMAKER Conference 2020 and will be presented at a National Skills and Education Conference around Robotics and IoT in Q2 2021. The findings will also form a chapter of a white paper on skills acquisition to be published in 2021.

The spread of Covid-19 and resultant lockdown shortly after the project’s initiation rendered face-to-face interventions impossible to hold, so the project was forced to hold an intervention event online to enable it gather data around potential pathways to engaging people with little previous experience of IoT. The ensuing SERAS Environment Making Challenge was advertised through Eventbrite and by engaging the support of sector stakeholders throughout the UK who had access to networks through which they could disseminate the publicity to communities with little previous experience of IoT, such as Sheffield eLearning, Steamworks, Sero, The Good things Foundation, AgeUK Sheffield, and council-funded Making projects linked to libraries in Barnsley and Liverpool.

There were four weeks available to publicise the event. It was understood that the project’s ability to reach digitally excluded communities would be limited by the fact that we could only approach potential individual participants digitally, due to the lockdown. The event was staged over two weeks, with daily sessions lasting an hour, from June 22nd to the 3rd of July 2020, on the Blackboard Collaborate platform. 47 members of the public joined the first session, presented by a well-known IoT writer and academic, who set the scene for the Challenge and explored the ideas behind Making and the Internet of Things.

Participants were encouraged to fill in a pre-event questionnaire. Following from the 66:34 % male-female ratio in those who had initially booked tickets for the event, the survey revealed a 50:50 gender split in actual attendees. In terms of age, there was a 50:50 split between over and under 24s, with two people identifying themselves as 51-65. The largest category (33.3%) were in the 18-24 category. 16.7% were 11-17. In terms of previous experience of IoT and Making, half the respondents had limited knowledge of IoT, with 12.5% being unfamiliar with the term, while 70% had no previous Making experience.

Further sessions through the week were hosted individually by a diverse and engaging panel of Makers, with sessions on how to come up with ideas to design a problem and solution, in which the presenter narrated her own experience first working in IoT then running a Maker enterprise in Sheffield. Another Maker helped participants plan for a Make and decide what components to use to solve the problems that they were designing. From the 47 participants who initially logged into the first session, 40 were still attending the event by the end of the first week.

Please follow this link for recorded videos of the sessions.

Results

The project has achieved the delivery of a full report on skills acquisition in IoT, central to which was a detailed description of an online intervention event  – The SERAS Environment Making Challenge – held by the project in Months 3/4 to gather data around the potential of utilising remote Making as a scalable tool for future IoT skills provision in preparing the UK workforce for the workplace of 2030. Please find below, some of the results of the project in data extracted from the event and detailed in the delivered report:

Diversity & Inclusion

With a 50:50 gender split among respondents to the pre-event questionnaire, following on from an initial 66:34% male:female split in those who originally registered for the event, the event itself did demonstrate diversity in participation. Moreover, with 55% of the challenge entries being submitted by female participants, a gradually evolving gender bias in participation figures towards female representation demonstrates the efficacy of the format and content of the event in retaining diverse participation.

The project was also successful in attracting and attaining persistence in a diverse range of age groups. The spread across the age range from under-13 to 50+ was fairly equal; though 18-24 was the largest age group, the under 18s and over 50s were well represented and persisted well through the event.

Digital Exclusion

Less successful were attempts to attract digitally excluded participants, with the vast majority of entrants responding that they had good access, on their own computers, to the online event. With lockdown and the short timescale in planning and publicising the event, it proved hard to reach such communities – especially given that the only way to reach them was online.

Authentic Learning

By framing the event as an Environment Making Challenge, participants were able to engage in project-based learning with an environmental theme that lent value to their work, in solving environmental problems, and meaning in that the solutions they designed were born from their own lives and interests.

Although the technological and creative challenge was hard, the lessened social pressures of contributing anonymously online as part of a group appears to have generated the kind of risk balance that engendered significant resilience in the participants. Over 70% of the original participants persisted to the end of the event, with 35% going on to dedicate the time and effort to enter a project into the challenge.

IoT Skills for 2030

Identified as the primary skill required in the future workplace, problem solving was also the prime requisite skill in the Challenge. Teamwork, digital literacy, critical thinking and communication skills were also all key to success in the challenge – as they will be to success in the future workplace. The group dynamic of the event enabled teamwork to flourish, as everyone worked together through the two weeks of the event, and several of the participants commented that they especially appreciated the group dynamic’s ability to help them persist through the event and harness their own creativity.

Deliverables and other tangible outputs

In terms of a case study, a detailed report on IoT skills acquisition and the potential scalability of utilising remote Making in skills provision and engagement was delivered at the end of the project and can be found here. The report includes a detailed analysis of the remote event – the SERAS Environment Making Challenge – staged in M3/4 of the project – as a response to meeting the challenge posed by the Covid lockdown in generating data for the project and report.

In terms of video presentations/demonstrations – we have attached a link to a bespoke YouTube channel featuring recorded videos of the remote event. There are separate videos of each session of the overall event, featuring collaborators on the project such as Stefan Poslad from Queen Mary, University of London giving us an introduction to the ideas behind IoT; LeKisha Bradley from Bright Box Makerspace on how to design a problem and solution; the writer and educator Tanya Fish on how to start a Make; David Pride from the Open University on Making with Micro:bits and Oli Howson from the Open University with two sessions on using Arduino boards.

We have also attached a video link to a report on the event presented by Richard Waterstone at the UNIMAKER Academic Makerspace Conference on September 7th 2020.

Impact

Processes or Services Created/Enhanced

  • The multidisciplinary approach to problem solving adopted by the project, with diverse pathways into designing and finding solutions to problems, worked well to prepare participants for the workplace of the future, in which a wide variety of roles and soft human attributes will be required if the UK is to take advantage of the opportunities offered by 4IR technologies such as IoT.
  • Utilising the Making community and ethos to draw people further into technological awareness and facility offers educators a method and format that can readily be scaled, within or outwith the constraints of lockdown and the unfolding context of Covid-19. The event delivered inclusive skills training and the learnings can be applied elsewhere to help address existing demographic imbalances.
  • Developing relationships between educators, Makers and digital exclusion networks will need to be fostered if such events are to be scaled sufficiently to impact the skills deficit around technologies such as IoT.
  • The efficacy of Making in knowledge construction is altered but not necessarily diminished when participants are unable to design, build and publicly share physical objects, due to a lack of access to physical resources. Participant observation of Making and the group dynamic that can be forged in an online learning community can lend significant authenticity and tangibility to the learning process.

Next steps

Activities Underway
A White Paper on Skills and Education for Robotics and Autonomous systems will be published in Q2 2021, featuring a section on skills for IoT and the success of the SERAS Making challenge.
A conference paper on the event itself and the challenges of holding such interventions during lockdown will be presented at a national SERAS conference when Covid-19 regulations allow this to be run.

Planned Activities
Hold further online interventions such as the SERAS Environment Making Challenge to develop a larger body of research into the efficacy of utilising Making in online initiatives to foster engagement and familiarity with IoT and to encourage participants to generate their own pathways to further learning.

Develop simulations and other learning resources to improve the technology available to potential learners and attract a wider audience beyond those driven to participate by their backgrounds and technological ambition.

Lessons learned

The project was highly successful in reaching its aims and objectives, largely due to collaborative efforts of the wider network utilised to deliver the event. Strong working ties were forged between the collaborative partners delivering the event, which will lead to further work together to address the IoT and 4IR skills issue.

There were some technical issues that affected delivery of the event that could have been done better in hindsight – particularly ensuring better quality broadcasting equipment for the various presenters to employ.

Access to deliverables, resources and media content

Please follow this link for recorded videos of the sessions.

Please find access to the report here.

Please find a link to the UNIMAKER Academic Makerspace Conference presentation here. The video contains all four presentations delivered on the afternoon of the first day of the conference. Our presentation starts at 55 minutes.

What has Pitch-In done for you?

The funding and support provided by the Pitch-In project has enabled us to generate significant findings and data on the efficacy of utilising remote Making as a scalable and effective means of skills provision and engagement with IoT, by enabling us to hold a highly successful online intervention during lockdown.

Such findings enabled the project to produce and deliver an impactful report which will form part of a white paper to be published in Q2 2021 and presented to government. The funding and support from P-I also enabled the project to deliver its findings at the UNIMAKER Academic Makerspace Conference 2020. A conference paper, in collaboration with The Open University will also be presented at a national SERAS conference in summer 2021.

Project lead:

Professor Tony Prescott, The University of Sheffield

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